by Aliette de Bodard
Nanpeng watched her student Khean practise for the Great Dance in the courtyard, her lithe body swaying to the rhythm of the xylophones. Each of Khean’s hand gestures naturally flowed into the next; her body bent smoothly, without visible stress. Khean’s face under the golden headdress was, as proper for a dancer, expressionless, but no tiredness appeared either in her eyes or in her gestures.
Khean was good. Extraordinarily good, and fearless as well. That mattered very much for a dancer, especially one about to enter the Great Dance, the dance that would bring the monsoon rain but leave the dancer utterly paralysed. Nanpeng was proud of her student.
Serey, the High Priest of the Destroyer, stood to Nanpeng’s side, his eyes watching every gesture Khean made.
“Only two days left before the Great Dance,” he said. His almond eyes turned, briefly, to Nanpeng.
“Yes,” Nanpeng said. “You sound worried.”
Serey kept watching the courtyard, where the musicians played under the eyes of the numerous statues of the gods. No, Nanpeng realised with a pang of fear. Serey was watching Khean.
Serey said at last, “You taught her well, Nanpeng. That does you credit.”
Credit. Nanpeng laughed, more sharply than she had intended. It was only because of Khean that Nanpeng had once more joined the Hall of the Dancers, only because of Khean that she once more had a status in the city of Phulom.
“But her heart isn’t into it,” Serey said. Below, Khean’s arms were going through the Leaf gesture: the palm at right angles from the arm, the fingers bent backwards, the elbow thrown sharply out of joint and undulating like a writhing snake.
“That’s not true,” Nanpeng said. “The dance is her life. look at her.” Look at how Khean moves, she thought. Look at how fearless she is. She would not be like Nanpeng and crumple only days before the Great Dance, frightened of what would happen to her once the dance was over, frightened of her body being left forever paralysed by the magic. She’d be greater than that. Greater than Nanpeng, whose fear still ruled her.
Serey shook his head. “I’ve been overseeing the training of dancers for years. I know what I’m talking about. Her heart just isn’t into it.” He made a placating gesture, no doubt seeing Nanpeng’s anger. “Not that it matters, Nanpeng. Once the Great Dance begins and the power fills her, there will be no going back.”
“Then why are you telling me that?”
Serey shrugged. “Because you’re her teacher. I thought you’d want to know.”
Nanpeng did not want to know. She had not wanted her attention drawn to each of Khean’s gestures, not wanted to wonder if Khean’s expressionless face hid boredom. But she could not ignore Serey, no matter how she wished to. He was right: he’d been doing this for a long time. He’d been High Priest when Nanpeng had been chosen for the Great Dance. He had also been the one who had stripped Nanpeng of her status as a dancer twenty years ago and sentenced her to work in the fields for five years–uncomfortable memories Nanpeng did not wish to dwell on.
“I’ll talk to her,” Nanpeng said.
“You wanted to see me, kru?” Khean asked as she came into the room. She used, without apparent thought, the honorific for teacher, which brought irrational pride to Nanpeng: she still could not quite believe Khean would respect her.
Khean laid her headdress on the stone floor, and shook her long black hair free of its pins.
“Yes,” Nanpeng said. “I spoke with High Priest Serey earlier.” She tried to keep her voice emotionless. She did not want Khean to see how worried she was. “He said your movements are flawless, and that you’re a great dancer.”
Khean’s face hardened. “You never report compliments to me,” she said. “Not unless my dancing is truly good, and I know it wasn’t this morning. What else did he say?”
“He said you didn’t believe in what you were doing.”
Khean went very still. “Did he?” Her face was the dancer’s mask, smoothed clean of all expression.
“He’s right,” Nanpeng said. “You knew this, didn’t you?” The accusation came out of her lips before she could hold it back.
“What if it isn’t?” Khean asked. “Does it even matter?”
“You know it does.”
“I’m good enough,” Khean said. “You know I can do it.”
“That’s not the question. It’s your faith we are talking about, Khean. The Great Dance is a prayer to the gods for rain. It’s not a recipe for the monsoon.”
“Because suddenly you know everything?” Khean asked, her face twisting.
“I’m older than you. I’m your teacher.”
“But you’re not a dancer,” Khean said, softly. “I am.”
That was Khean all over: she just knew which barb would hurt the most. Nanpeng took a sharp breath, and said the first thing that came to her mind. “You’re just an arrogant girl who thinks she knows everything. That doesn’t make a dancer out of you.”
“Doesn’t?” Khean said. “I’m your little pet, the one you lifted from the rice paddies and made into a dancer. You were so proud of me, kru.” She spat the honorific as if it were unspeakably vile.
“Just tell me,” Nanpeng said stubbornly. “Do you believe in what you’re doing?”
“Do I believe?” Khean said. “In a Dance that will suck the joy out of me, in movements that will drain me until my body no longer answers to my commands? Who’d be insane enough to believe that, kru?”
“The Dance is joy,” Nanpeng said. “When you dance, it fills you until you can’t think of anything else. It elevates you. People will honour you after it’s over, but what matters is that you’ve danced.” Nanpeng’s body still yearned for it, yearned for that power to fill her, to make her a bridge between heaven and earth. But she had lost her courage a long time ago.
“You don’t believe that either,” Khean said with a snort. “You didn’t even have the nerve to dance at the end, did you?”
“The Great Dance hasn’t started yet. I’m still your teacher, and you will show me respect.”
“No,” Khean said. “I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough fear, enough of your lack of trust and your perfectionism to prepare my ‘elevation’, as you say it. I want a normal life, demons take you. I want a husband. And children. I don’t want people worshipping my paralysed husk because I gave my body away for rain.”
“I trained you. I taught you otherwise.”
“I don’t care about your training anymore,” Khean said. She removed the silk overshirt she’d worn for practise, and tossed it into a corner. Now she wore only a white cotton shirt and a long skirt. Then, one by one, she threw the golden bracelets on her wrists and ankles to the floor, and finally broke the necklace that had graced her neck.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Nanpeng asked, hoping that Khean would see how foolishly she was acting.
But Khean merely shook her head, in a gesture that was effortlessly graceful. “You’re not the mistress of me. I go where I please.”
“Khean,” Nanpeng called, sharply, but Khean was already out of the room.
Nanpeng remained standing alone, staring at the garments and jewellery scattered on the floor, carelessly abandoned. It had meant nothing to Khean. How could she? How could she not understand the power of the Dance, the exhilaration?
Nanpeng had failed. She had taught Khean everything she knew, every bit of craft and skill that Nanpeng had ever known: the legacy of one who had once been the most promising dancer in Phulom. But in doing so, Nanpeng had also shown to Khean the fear that had made Nanpeng renounce the Great Dance twenty years ago, and Khean had believed in that fear. Neither Khean nor Nanpeng would honour the gods.
Nanpeng had failed. Khean had failed. And if Khean had failed…there would be no Great Dance, no monsoon to water the fields.
There had to be a way, a way to bring Khean back. Serey would know.
Nanpeng went to see Serey in the Red Temple, at the heart of the temple complex of Phulom. She found him offering coconut paste on the altar. Around him were the incarnations of the Destroyer: the prophet, the soldier and the beast, every pair of stone eyes trained towards the altar at the centre. Dancers from ages past stood in every carving, their hands frozen into different gestures; rain came at their calling.
“I’ve lost her,” she said. Her stomach felt hollow, and yet she could not dismiss her anger. She had trusted Khean. She had believed in the girl, and it had turned out to be a lie.
Serey finished his offering, muttering a quick prayer to the Destroyer, the god who had protected the earth in the beginning of the world, the god who brought monsoon rain every year to make the earth blossom.
Nanpeng nodded. “She didn’t believe anymore, she said. She left everything on the floor and ran away.”
Serey frowned. His gaze revealed nothing of what he felt, but Nanpeng knew him, and could feel his worry, his fear, almost as clearly as it had been her own. It seemed to fill the temple, overlaying the smell of incense.
“I shouldn’t have told you that,” Serey said. “I didn’t think it was that serious with the girl. I thought she had understood, and was ready to pay the price. It’s part of the dance, after all. I thought–” He stopped, watched Nanpeng with grave eyes.
You taught her, his gaze said. I trusted you to do better work. I expected you to make her believe.
What did he expect? Nanpeng thought, bitterly. Khean was headstrong. She didn’t believe. Nanpeng should have seen that earlier, and she hadn’t. But Khean had not warned her. Khean had not said anything. Demons take her. Why wait two days until the Great Dance to undo everything?
“You have a replacement,” Nanpeng said. There had been a girl, years ago, to take her place in the Great Dance. There were always dancers in the temple.
Serey did not answer.
Serey sighed. “It’s been a bad season for dancers,” he said. “One girl dislocated her wrist trying to go too fast with the exercises. One sprained her ankle so badly she’ll be lucky to walk without a limp. And we lost several more of them to fever. The water reservoirs all over the city are a blessing for irrigating the rice paddies, but when the water festers in them, all sorts of illness strike Phulom.”
Nanpeng’s heart sank. “You mean–”
Serey’s face was grave. “There is no replacement. There is no one to go through the Great Dance in Khean’s place.”
“There’s no time to train one.”
“She was tremendously gifted,” Nanpeng said, trying to defend Khean.
Serey’s gaze moved towards her. His expression was close to the one he’d had when he had stripped Nanpeng of her status: he had felt sorry for her, but the good of the city always came first. “She was,” he said. “But dancers who break, for any reason, are my responsibility.”
He moved towards the altar, and picked up the yellow thread that marked him as a member of the priesthood. He carefully tied it across his chest, over his tunic. “There’s no choice,” he said, moving towards the door. “Khean has to dance, or there will be no rain, and no rain means no harvest this year. The city is more important than a foolish girl’s qualms. I’ll convince her.”
He did not invite Nanpeng to go. It did not bother her at all: she was used to standing in the shadows, watching others act in her stead. She knew she had disappointed Serey twenty years ago; she’d given up the right to act when she’d failed. She’d only been welcomed back into the temple because of Khean.
And now Khean was gone.
Nanpeng stood in the highest tower in the Hall of the Dancers: a shrine to the Destroyer reserved for those dancers wanting solitude. She fed her offering of hibiscus flowers to the sacred fire on the altar and said her prayers, all the while knowing the gods would not listen to a failed dancer.
She approached the window, and watched the city of Phulom spread out at the bottom of the slope: at the centre, the temple complex with its moat, the palaces of teakwood, and then, on the outskirts, the simpler houses of the farmers with the rice paddies. All of this would no longer exist if there was no Great Dance, if there was no monsoon.
She watched the entrance to the complex, hoping to see Serey returning. It wouldn’t take him long. Khean would have thought upon it; she’d have realised how wrong she was.
But the sun arced over the temples, and still Serey hadn’t returned. A palanquin on the shoulder of four bearers came into the complex, and Nanpeng shuddered, knowing what would be in that: a monster with an atrophied body, with arms and legs withered to a pathetic thinness. Only the face would move and speak, a reminded of the grace the body had once held.
It had been such a sight that had finally broken her courage, twenty years ago. She had not wanted to be like that. The dance was not worth that price. But, oh, how she still hungered for it, for even the smallest taste of it.
Still no Serey.
When Serey did come back, he was not alone. He had a posse of palace guards with him, their copper breastplates glinting in the evening sun, their spears at the ready. The guards surrounded Khean and a man Nanpeng did not know.
Serey had not convinced Khean. He’d arrested her.
Later, Serey came to Nanpeng’s room. Nanpeng was sitting cross-legged on her mat, still trying to recover from the enormity of what Serey had done. One did not arrest a dancer.
“It’s taken care of,” Serey said.
Nanpeng watched his face, trying to see any emotion in it.
“I do what I can,” Serey said, at last, retreating before her gaze. “Would you rather there was no rain at all? Do you want our ruin?”
“No,” Nanpeng said, at last. “Who’s the man with her? A family member?”
“A friend of hers,” Serey said, and something in his eyes told Nanpeng otherwise. Not a friend. Something else, something forbidden forever to dancers who took part in the Great Dance.
Khean had a love. Khean had lied to Nanpeng. Had there ever been anything true in their relationship? “And you think to use him?” Nanpeng asked.
“I am using him,” Serey said. “If she doesn’t dance, he will die.”
You have no right, Nanpeng wanted to say, but she knew he was making the only choice he could. This went beyond either of them.
“Where did you put her?”
“In her room,” Serey said. “With three guards at the door.” His face was hard, closed to all emotions.
Nanpeng thought of Khean, of what it would mean to her to be treated in that way. “May I see her?” she asked.
Serey’s gaze rested on her for a while, weighing her it seemed. At last, he inclined his head a fraction. “Yes. Not for long, though. There are other things that need to be done.”
Khean had been weeping: her eyes were bloodshot with grey circles under them. But she sat very straight on her mat, with a dancer’s natural poise.
“Kru,” she said. “How nice of you to come.” It was meant as sarcasm, but there wasn’t any venom in her voice–just weariness.
“I came to see you,” Nanpeng said, and stopped, feeling foolish. “You had a love,” she went on.
Khean did not move. It was night outside, but the moon had risen: its white light, coming in through the window, threw her face into sharp relief, until she seemed to be a carving of a goddess on the temple walls. At last she said, “Yes.”
“For how long?” Nanpeng said, as softly as before. She couldn’t feel any anger anymore. She couldn’t feel anything.
“Long enough,” Khean said. Her eyes were looking past Nanpeng, past the temple, as if she could reach to where Serey had imprisoned her love. “Yanaravan is a good man.”
“And you’d abandon everything for him?” Nanpeng asked.
“Everything?” Khean asked. “For me, it isn’t everything. Don’t mistake me,” she added. “I’m grateful to you, kru, for all you’ve done, for raising me out of poverty and giving me a life of ease. But it’s still not what I want. It’s only what you want. You believe, with all your heart. I don’t.
“Still, I thought I could make it work. I thought I’d please you. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t lie.”
“You were so fearless,” Nanpeng said. “I believed in you.”
“No,” Khean said. “I know what I am, kru, and there’s no fearlessness in it.”
“And so you relinquished the dance.”
“Maybe,” Khean said. Her face was unreadable. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Serey knows how valuable Yanaravan is to me, and he’s right.”
“Did you sleep with him?” The question filling Nanpeng’s mind had finally got past her lips.
Khean laughed, mirthlessly. “As if it mattered. But no. Yanaravan knew we had no future. And he still loved me. I dreamt of holding hands with him, of kissing him. That mattered.” Her gaze was distant again, not focusing on anything. “The rest is just nothing much.”
“We need you,” Nanpeng said. “To bring rain. To water the fields and the paddies. It won’t be for nothing.”
“Then let’s just say I’m sacrificing myself for the sake of the city,” Khean said. “If it pleases you. Goodnight, kru.”
And she turned her face to the wall, and would say nothing more.
Nanpeng left the room, not sure why her heart was constricting in her chest.
That night, Nanpeng couldn’t sleep. Again and again she saw the circles under Khean’s eyes, her dull gaze, as if all the tears had already been shed. She heard Khean’s voice, again and again.
Then let’s just say I’m sacrificing myself for the sake of the city.
It’s still not what I want.
Nanpeng sat up on her pallet, staring at the moon through the window: the moon, the eye of the gods on this world. Its merciless light bathed the room, offering no comfort, offering no forgiveness.
Nanpeng rose, shaking. She went into one of the courtyards furthest away from the entrance to the complex, and, making sure no one saw her, she made one of the hand gestures she’d been taught: Flower, with index and thumb joined, and the three other fingers splayed like a fan. It flowed into another gesture, and then another. Her whole body started moving; she imagined she was once more moving to the rhythm of the dance, the melancholy music of the horn creating a hollow in her heart only the magic of the gods could fill.
And with it came the fear, as it always did: the fear that the power would take everything from her. The fear that it would make her like Phreap, her dancer friend: a cripple with atrophied limbs, with nothing left whole but the face–the face that was of no use to a dancer, since it took no part in the dance. Her whole body trembled; she couldn’t maintain the pretence anymore. She released the muscles of her hand, stared at her fingers.
She could not. She could not. Khean had been right. She had no courage.
You believe, with all your heart, Khean said, in her memory.
Not anymore. Her fear had choked her faith.
It’s still not what I want. It’s only what you want.
She wanted that, more than anything. She wanted to honour the gods, to be the vessel for the magic. And yet she feared so much to become an impotent cripple. It was not uncommon: Khean feared that too.
Khean did fear it.
Nanpeng was forcing Khean to do something she herself wouldn’t do. What was she doing? What had she believed in? Nothing. She had tried to undo her mistakes of the past, but to do that she had chosen someone who would become paralysed in her stead.
Nanpeng had moulded Khean into herself, had made the instrument of her redemption. It was wrong. It didn’t change anything. It didn’t lessen her fear, or make her less unworthy.
What had she done?
Nanpeng went to see Serey at dawn, and found him already awake. He was purifying himself in the small basin before his quarters.
“Nanpeng,” he said, looking at her. “You’re up early.”
“It’s wrong,” she said, without wasting time on preambles. “You can’t worship the gods that way.”
“There is no other choice,” Serey said.
“There is,” Nanpeng said, softly. She had to drag every word out of her dry throat.
Serey raised an eyebrow.
“Let me take her place,” Nanpeng asked.
“Impossible,” Serey said.
“Do you think I’ve forgotten?”
Serey’s face hardened. “I remember you, Nanpeng. I don’t believe you’ve ever forgotten what we taught you. But–”
“Tell me why not.”
“I’ve done my time,” Nanpeng said. “I’ve worked in the fields for the five years you gave me.”
“Why would you want to do such a thing?”
Nanpeng shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m ready to pay the price, Serey.”
“But am I ready to let you pay it?” Serey asked. His eyes would not leave her.
“You said it yourself,” Nanpeng said. “Khean’s heart wasn’t into it.”
Serey remained silent. His hand scratched his beardless face, thoughtfully.
“Don’t you at least believe in what we are doing?” Nanpeng asked.
“I believe,” Serey said, with a shake of his head. “I am not one of those corrupt priests, Nanpeng, no matter what you think of me. I’m no monster. I do what is needed.”
“And do you think I will fail?” Nanpeng asked.
He came closer, tilted her face upwards, to look into her eyes. Nanpeng remembered those same eyes judging her, sending her into her exile from the Hall of the Dancers. He had been one of her teachers, once: the one who knew the words to speak to the gods, the proper reverence.
“No,” Serey said, at last. “I believe you will dance with all your heart.”
On the morning of the Great Dance, Nanpeng got up early. Three handmaidens came to sew her into her costume of ephemeral silks, and another laid the heavy gold headdress on her hair.
Outside, on the plaza of the temple, the sun had barely risen. In the faint light, Serey and the other priests of the Destroyer were going through the last of the necessary rituals. The pungent smell of incense wafted up to Nanpeng’s nostrils.
There were few spectators: only the elite of Phulom was allowed to witness the rite. A handful of noblemen and wealthy merchants stood before the temple entrance, quietly talking among themselves.
The orchestra–twenty musicians with xylophones, rosewood horns and clappers–was on one side of the plaza, awaiting Nanpeng’s arrival.
Khean stood beside the orchestra. Yanaravan held her hand, but Khean was not smiling. She bowed slowly to Nanpeng, with both hands joined, much lower than was needed for a student bowing to her teacher.
Nanpeng acknowledged the salute, but did not go to Khean. Some temptations could not be given into, lest she break again. She merely went to her appointed place, avoiding the gazes of the priests. The air was warm and heavy, charged with power: power that reverberated within the earth under her feet.
“It is time,” Serey said, quietly. “May the Destroyer, who undoes and renews all things, look with favour upon you all.”
The rosewood horns started playing first, and then the xylophones and the clappers joined them, the winding music filling Nanpeng’s heart. She raised one hand, extended it into the Leaf gesture, and felt the crest of power course from the earth into her, filling her. The hollow in her stomach receded to nothing.
The ground under her feet grew warmer as she danced. Power crackled around her, until the Flower gesture seemed a reflection of a flower opening, and then became something deeper: a low, reverberating voice within her, calling all things of the earth to blossom and bear fruit.
She danced. She was the earth, she was the god, magic coursing in her like fire, and as her body moved she felt the clouds gather in some far away place, felt the wind rise in the deepest places of the jungle. The smell before the rain filled the air.
It seemed to Nanpeng that the dance went on forever, that it was merely another gesture to slowly sink to her knees, her arms gradually stiffening, her legs resting, unresponsive, on the warm earth. The burning power in her receded, faded to nothing.
She was lying on the ground, staring upwards, as the first drops of water fell on her face. The sky overhead was dark with rain-clouds.
Hands reached for her, steadied her crippled body. The priests carried her on their shoulders, chanting hymns of thanks to the Destroyer and to His vessel.
To her. Her stomach was hollow again.
At the edge of the courtyard, barely visible in the pouring rain, a palanquin with four bearers was waiting. They would take her to the temple to dwell with the other crippled dancers; the priests would worship her, and she would never want for nothing.
She’d expected to feel disgust at what she had become, but she didn’t. She felt only the joy that the rains had come, that the god had come to fill her.
The priests laid her in the palanquin. One of them reached out to close the curtains, but a hand stopped him.
Nanpeng stared at Serey’s grave face, finding no words in the void left by the magic.
Serey bowed, as deeply as a priest before the statue of the Destroyer. “You danced well, Nanpeng. Thank you.”
Behind Serey were Khean and Yanaravan, and they, too, bowed deeply to her. “Thank you,” Khean said, and her voice quivered, on the edge of breaking. “Thank you for letting me have a husband.”
Nanpeng closed her eyes, briefly–one of the only gestures her crippled body would let her do. Still no words would come.
“Thank you,” she croaked at last, her voice sounding like that of a stranger. “For letting me find my courage.”
She watched Khean and Yanaravan, watched Serey, their faces all stamped with the same reverence. Khean was crying, tears running down her face, mingling with the raindrops. Nanpeng’s eyes stung, but she would not cry. She would not break.
The curtain closed, leaving her alone on the silk cushions. The palanquin jolted forwards, taking Nanpeng to her new life–the life of a pampered cripple, seeing other dancers make the gestures she could no longer make, seeing other girls filled with the rhythm and the joy of the dance, an exhilaration forever denied to her.
I do not care, Nanpeng thought, listening to the rain pelting the roof of the palanquin. I have danced, and it is all that matters.
Aliette de Bodard lives in Paris, where she holds a job as a Computer Engineer. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Realms of Fantasy, Interzone, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. She is a Campbell Award finalist for 2009.
Visit aliettedebodard.com for more information.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish